"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
—Friedrich Nietzsche, "Jenseits von Gut und Bose, IV, 146."
The second installment in Namco’s epic series, Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose (Beyond Good and Evil in English, titled the same as Friedrich Nietzsche’s hugely influential 1886 work) takes its grandiose story to Second Miltia, unraveling the history of the Miltian Conflict, among other story arcs, and engulfing the gamer in an addictive atmosphere; a refined and expanded battle system; and, at times, an overdose of cinematic storytelling.
As a newbie to the world of Xenosaga, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which newcomers can step into the series—an element Namco boasts as one of the sequel’s strengths. The game begins not too surprisingly in the past on the embattled world Miltia. Your party starts out small, just two characters piloting a giant mech (officially titled E.S. Robots), but soon you meet up with Jin Uzuki and are forced to fight sans robots against some seriously powered-up baddies. After a set of cinema scenes, including an amazing sword fight clearly inspired by Yuen Wo Ping, you are sent back to the present.
I guess I should supplement all this by saying—don’t be too concerned with the who’s and why’s, I wasn’t. Thanks to an almost numbing amount of CGI scenes the story will tell itself in due time and whether you know everything about the Xenosaga world or not, it all makes sense (if you don’t skip at least one or two scenes along the way, you might just be insane!). For extra backstory, and depending on the store, you might still be able to find the promotional DVD with all the cinema scenes from Xenosaga I, available initially to preorders only, but I was able to procure one recently as a leftover at Electronics Boutique.
With the fundamental story highlights out of the way for the time being, that leaves us plenty of room to talk about the other reason to be playing this game—the battle system!
As I said earlier, you start out in robot combat (it takes two characters to pilot an E.S.), with long and short range weapons, as well as special attacks at your disposal, but are soon forced to fight with just your characters. The system is turn-based with some interesting additions that set it apart from other traditional style RPGs. Each character attacks with button combinations, such as MOMO, a100-Series Observational Realian aka an adroid thingy, who uses a bow.
Hitting the circle button launches a single attack at either an airborne or ground-based foe. But making use of the "stock" system will allow her to execute extended combos. Instead of attacking on a turn, you select "stock" and charge up for the next round, where you will be able to unleash two attacks and so on (you can charge up to 3 stocks to unleash deadly combos). I was also able to gain free stocks by sending enemies into "break" status.
Each enemy has a weak zone (in addition to weaknesses to elements such as fire and lighting) and by exploiting that zone, you can force an enemy into "break" state where a number of variables come into play. Not only can you do critical damage to enemies in this state, but you can also mercilessly pound on your foe by using another component of the system—boosting.
In essence, boosting lets you cut in line, so that you can follow up another character’s break attack to pop the enemy into the air, or knock them down. There are even double character attacks, but those are mostly needed for bosses and other difficult battles.